Public School Discipline for Creating Uncensored Anonymous Internet Forums
103 Pages Posted: 4 Aug 2008 Last revised: 24 May 2014
Public schools often consider it appropriate to impose discipline for students' Internet communications. This article explores the proper legal response to student Internet speech whose effects are felt on campus. It concludes that students' off-campus speech - including speech over the Internet - enjoys considerable constitutional and statutory protection that in most cases prevents school discipline in response to the speech.
Parts I and II describe an early-arising fact pattern that forms the basis of the legal discussion. Seattle-area students who were early adopters of technology created an online forum for fellow students to express themselves anonymously and without censorship. They faced formal school discipline when an unknown person posted a bomb threat on the forum without the creators' knowledge or consent. In addition to describing the facts for their historical interest, these Parts also note important historical and sociological parallels. Part I notes that the attempt to discipline the students resembled the colonial-era sedition trial of John Peter Zenger. Part II situates the official reaction to youth adopting novel technology within the discourse of moral panic.
Part III describes the controlling First Amendment law regarding student expression at school. Part IV explains why schools lack authority to punish students for their off-campus speech, including their speech on the internet.
Part V considers punishment of students for disseminating the speech of others through uncensored forums. It proposes that the statutory immunity found in Section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act should also be a defense to school discipline.
Part VI considers how the right to speak anonymously should be evaluated in a school setting.
Keywords: Education, Internet, Cyberspeech, Cyberbullying, Student Rights, Student Speech, Tinker, Fraser, Bethel, Hazelwood, Kuhlmeier, Anonymity, Anonymous Speech, Zeran, Defamation, LaVine, Threats, Columbine, Fighting Words
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